My visit to the Killing Fields and S21 is something I will never forget. The atrocities committed here go way beyond what these images and words can describe. I still feel however that I owe it to the Millions that died during the Khmer Rouge occupation to try and share what occurred here. We did visit the Killing Fields before S21 but as victims were taken from S21 to the Killing Fields I am also starting there first.
On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and began a 4 year rule that would change Cambodia forever. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was born to the name Saloth Sar and was brought up in rural Cambodia. I saw an interview with his brother who simply thought he was missing. It wasn't until he saw some propaganda with his face on it that he realise that his own brother was responsible for the turmoil his country was in. The name Pol Pot was just a nickname which he assumed and was short for Political Potential. After becoming the leader of the Khmer Rouge he strived to execute his terrifying vision of what his country should become. A new beginning in his eyes and declared the year he claimed leadership of Cambodia to be "Year Zero". Under the leadership of Pol Pot the people of Cambodia were force to desert the cities to work the Land. Thousands died of starvation, exhaustion or disease while walking the hundreds of kilometers to find a new homes. Anyone from a Profession or who was highly educated were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Even simply being well dressed or wearing glasses was enough to incarcerate you.
S21 or Tuol Sleng was a childrens High School before being transformed into a gruesome Security Centre. The front wing was reserved for "special inmates" requiring extreme interrogation. The White Blocks seen in front of the building are the graves of the last Prisoners found dead in their cells after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Here is one of the cells from the front wing with a bed, leg shackles and ammo boxes that was used as a toilet Listed below are the rules of the prison which were strictly enforced. Old Schoolyard equipment was sinisterly repurposed to torture victims. Once used for children's exercises, people were suspended upside down and interrogated until they passed out then dunked into the pots filled with dirty water below. Barbed wire was secured to the front of this building and the rooms divided into smaller cells. Victims forced to sleep on the small hard floors without even the ability to roll over with leg shackles applied even in their Cells After the end of the occupation the documented photos of the victims were put on display for family members searching to find what became of their loved ones. Here another one of the many Torture Devices was on display. Victims were fastened to this table as the picture behind explains. These photos show how big the Prison was. The well maintained ground was a stark contrast of the Cruelty suffered here while it was functioning under the Khmer Rouge.
On the way out we had a chance to meet the only 2 living survivors of S21. My wife took the photo below of Chum Mey and I
Below is the only other surviver Bou Meng. I bought both their books. Victims of S21, once interrogated, were transported by Truck to Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields. Here they were they were force to kneel in front of mass graves to be kiiled. Execution methods varied but firearms were not used as to not waste ammunition. People bashed, clubed or had their throats cut with Knives and Farming Implements along with what is known as a Palm Knife which is a jaggered tooth like stem from a suger palm leaf. Nearly 9000 bodied of men, women and Children were exhumed here while thousands others still remain. This grave contained women and children. Pot Pot believed it was better to kill 100 innocents than to let 1 "guilty" go free. He also had a philosophy of "Kill the root, don't cut the grass" so whole families were slaughtered so there would be no one to exact revenge for a murdered loved one. This tree was known as the Killing Tree where Babies and Children were bashed before being thrown into the Grave. Whilst over looking the Graves our Tour Guide told use the story of his Parents marriage. How Men were lined up on one side and Women on the other then randomly selected. Refusal meant instant death. Solders listened to couples on the night of the wedding to confirm they were "getting along". Any couples that weren't were not given much time to sort things out. After a few days together they were then separated and sent back to work only seeing each other every month or so. Any Children born in these marriages, or Children in general, were removed from the Parents so they would be loyal to the State and not their Families. As time progressed the Bones and Clothing of the Victims would surface from the ground due to rain, floods and tree growth. Walking along the paths you couldn't avoid the bones and clothing that littered the walkways. This Tree was used to hang a Speaker that played Funeral Music to drown out the screams during Executions. After which the Graves were covered in Chemicals that served two purposes. To cover the smell and to make sure that anyone that survived didn't do so for long. The remains that were exhumed are now housed in a Stupa with different Bones stored on different levels. On the bottom and most visible were the Skulls Choeung Ek was only one of over 400 Killing Fields discovered from that horrendous time in Cambodia's History. It is believed that around 1/4 of the Cambodian population perished in the 4 years of the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot was only ever arrested for the death of a high ranking member of the Khmer Rouge and was sentenced to House Arrest. The Khmer Rouge agree to hand Pol Pot over to an International Tribunal in 1998 but died before being moved. His body was cremated before an autopsy could be performed.
After visiting these locations of such inexcusably ghastly inhumanity I can't help but to feel so lucky for the life I have and for never having to be placed in any situation even remotely like this and the fact this happened in my lifetime is almost incomprehensible. I also have so much respect for the Cambodian people who, despite what has happen to them are some of the most friendly, warm and welcoming people I have had the privilege to meet.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I know it isn't as bright as my normal blogs but I felt I needed to write it. I promise the next one will be happier.
Till next time.